The Moral Fiber Of Fiction

Paula M.L. Moya explores the connection between literature and morality:

Because works of literary fiction engage our emotions and challenge our perceptions, they both reflect on and help shape what we consider to be moral in the first place. Importantly, this can be the case as much for the author as for the reader.

Consider Toni Morrison’s Sula.

In a 1985 interview conducted by Bessie Jones, Morrison formulated the question that motivated the novel Sula: “If you say you are somebody’s friend as in Sula, now what does that mean? What are the lines that you do not step across?” Elsewhere in that same interview, Morrison explains that she views writing as a way of testing out the moral fiber of her characters in order to see how they respond to difficult situations: “Well, I think my goal is to see really and truly of what these people are made, and I put them in situations of great duress and pain, you know, I ‘call their hand.’ And, then when I see them in life threatening circumstances or see their hands called, then I know who they are.” Moreover, because Morrison regards writing as a process of moral and epistemic investigation, she does not write about ordinary, everyday people or events. Instead, she plumbs the hard cases—the situations where “something really terrible happens.” She explains: “that’s the way I find out what is heroic. That’s the way I know why such people survive, who went under, who didn’t, what the civilization was, because quiet as its kept much of our business, our existence here, has been grotesque.” The process of writing a novel can be mode of inquiry in which the “answer” surprises even the author.